REVIEW: Instant Composers Pool (ICP) Orchestra at Cafe Oto

Bassist Ernst Glerum of the ICP Orchestra at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2018. All Rights Reserved

Instant Composers Pool Orchestra
(Cafe Oto, 7 December 2018 (Second of a 2-night residency); review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

The ICP Orchestra are consistently at the top of their game – or games, and there are many of them – a phenomenal force of musicianship, invention, wit and feet-on-the-ground engagement. Formed back in '67, they are still driven by the percussive power of one of its three founders, drummer Han Bennink, who was right at the centre of the action in Cafe Oto's performance area for the concluding night of their first-ever residency at the venue.

In his own archly independent way Bennink epitomises the ICP's free spirit, inextricably bound to an intense, extraordinarily wide-ranging musical curiosity and understanding, and virtuosic, technical accomplishment, essential characteristics ingrained in the make-up of each of the band's (currently) ten members, the youngest of whom, trumpeter Thomas Heberer, has been with the Orchestra for 30 years!

Compositions and arrangements by the Orchestra's co-founder and mainstay, Misha Mengelberg, whose last performance outside the Netherlands was witnessed at the Vortex in 2013 (reviewed) and committed to film by the Dutch Alzheimer's Trust, figured strongly, and included his arrangements of Monk's Misterioso and Herbie Nichols's Spinning Song, two of the musicians to whom he accorded the utmost respect.

The choice of repertoire is something of an exercise in improvisation which keeps all band members on their toes, as violinist Mary Oliver explained in her recent interview for LondonJazzNews : "In the beginning it was always Misha [Mengelberg] who put the set-list together and it was always just a few minutes before the concert, and that’s still what happens."

They kicked off with Samba Zombie, prefaced generously and unforgivingly by Ab Baars' ear-splitting solo sax meltdown. Launch-pad take-off improvisation was complemented by jaw-droppingly tight section work and devilishly complex compositional challenges. No wonder I noted, during their first set, "This might be the best band on the planet!"

They took in bright contributions from the ICP's Guus Janssen (Rondo), Tristan Honsinger (Restless in Pieces), Michael Moore's arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael's Barbaric and a Basie number turned around by another departed ICP collaborator, Sean Bergin, fondly recalled by spokesperson for the ensemble, bassist Ernst Glerum.

Peppered throughout a characteristically erudite, respectful and near-, but also nowhere-near-, chaotic roller-coaster of a programme, were spontaneous, anarchic episodes which, on this occasion, focussed on trombonist Wolter Wierbos' mischievous peregrinations and brassy eruptions, and mock-disagreements between Oliver and the self-effacing (he protesteth too much!) Glerum, including a weird play on the wording of Water Heater, somewhat lost in translation (or wilful non-translation!).

One of the keys is in the licence which individual musicians are given to combine in small groupings, which gave Heberer and Mary Oliver the chances to stretch out with the support of just piano, bass and drum, or to solo unaccompanied, which allowed Toby Delius to offer a gloriously fluent, extemporised sax solo.

Perhaps the reason it worked so well on the night (and on the previous night, I hear) was that Cafe Oto became the typical converted store space from the Amsterdam of the '60s and '70s in to which the ICP Orchestra fitted like a glove.

ICP Orchestra
Ab Baars (saxophone)
Han Bennink (drums)
Toby Delius (saxophone)
Ernst Glerum (bass)
Guus Janssen (piano)
Thomas Heberer (trumpet)
Tristan Honsinger (cello)
Michael Moore (saxophone)
Mary Oliver (violin)
Wolter Wierbos (trombone)

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